On the road with Subcomandante Marcos
An Irishwoman’s Diary on the Zapatista Caravan
The Zapatista leader in 2001. “My mask is a mirror,” he claimed, never showing his face in public and stirring huge mystery, as a result, about his own identity. Photograph: Jorge Uzon/AFP/Getty Images
In February 2001 I decided, on a whim, to jump on a bus and follow the Zapatista rebel group around Mexico. In the two weeks that followed, I slept rough every night, showered only once, and survived on cold beans and rice, cheap cigarettes and endless cups of sweet, watery coffee. I had joined the Zapatista Caravan, a convoy of 30 or so buses journeying across the vast Mexican landscape as a peaceful protest, demanding better rights for the Maya Indians.
In the villages and towns all along the route from Chiapas to Mexico city, people lined the roadsides, chanting and clapping, schoolchildren waved flags, and workers crowded office windows, balconies and rooftops to watch the passing entourage. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the masked insurgents from the wilds of the Chiapas jungle, the rebels responsible for the armed uprising in 1994.
But it was Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista movement, who was the real curiosity. Wearing his trademark brown cap, a ski-mask and smoking a pipe, he delivered calm, lyrical speeches during the rallies along the way, speaking in riddles and poetry. “My mask is a mirror,” he claimed, never showing his face in public and stirring huge mystery, as a result, about his own identity.
“El Sup” as he was also known, was not originally from the indigenous region of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states. Though the government later identified him as a university professor, Marcos denied this and has never revealed his real name. Instead, his focus has always been on the championing the rights of the indigenous Maya. From his hut in the wilderness, he dispatched beautifully written communiques, describing the harsh realities of life on the fringes, sometimes wandering into myth or anecdotes about the mountain dawns and the fog or “the solitary smoke rings of my pipe”.
I was one of a few dozen or so non-Mexicans on the caravan and despite the cramped, stuffy bus – which broke down once or twice and had a permanently blocked toilet – there was a kind of excitement on board. During the long journeys – sometimes up to 12 and 15 hours a day – there were lively discussions in a mixture of Spanish and English about what were new issues at the time: globalisation, fair trade, sweatshops, the rise of Walmart and Starbucks. As outsiders, we became witnesses to the Zapatistas rallying against their government’s neoliberal policies and emerging as a powerful symbol for grassroots protest.
Most nights on the caravan – when the Zapatistas disappeared to secret locations – we slept out in the open, or in community halls, on pieces of cardboard. Once we spent the night in a stadium, on the concrete steps above a vast empty pitch. And everywhere we went, and amongst the crew of young and old supporters on the caravan (including the two Mexican women with long silver-plaits travelling on our bus), there was always someone playing music . I fell asleep one night to the sound of a saxophone and woke the following morning to bagpipes.
Occasionally, people would shake their heads or turn their backs as the caravan passed. And sometimes, the police presence at the protests was heavy handed. One afternoon, as we headed into the dusty countryside after a rally, I saw a group of ranchers on horseback, cracking their whips as we passed, and hissing.
On the day we finally reached Mexico city, thousands of people filled the main square. Every window, balcony and rooftop was rammed with onlookers and people wearing Zapatista T-shirts and bandanas, guys on stilts dressed up as Marcos and massive Zapatista papier-mâché heads bobbing around the streets. It was hot, I was completely exhausted and covered in mosquito bites – but then chants of “Zapata Vive” began to roll across the massive crowds and Marcos and his comandantes took to the stage for the last time on the Zapatista Caravan.
And so it was with a little hint of nostalgia that I read last week that El Sup has announced that he is standing down as the leader of the Zapatista movement. Calling himself a “hologram”, the statement read: “We have decided that today Marcos no longer exists.” For a mysterious rebel leader who preferred to keep his face hidden, it is, perhaps, a fitting sign-off.
But later that evening, and almost 13½ years since those two weeks spent travelling around Mexico, I found myself rooting through old boxes and looking for my Zapatista T-shirt and red bandana. Did all that really happen?